Shirley and Bob Gessner have weathered some tough times during their 56 years of marriage. But nothing could have prepared Shirley for the night of April 10, 2015, when she awoke at 3:30 a.m. to a thud — the sound of her husband falling out of bed.
“I asked him what was the matter, but Bob couldn’t talk. He couldn’t move, and I couldn’t get him up,” says Shirley about her husband, a former advertising executive and designer of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Pittsburgh Penguins logos. “I called 911 right away.”
The ambulance took Bob, 82, to the hospital closest to his home in St. Augustine, Florida, where doctors confirmed he was having a stroke.
For ischemic strokes, where an artery is blocked, doctors can often administer a clot-busting drug known as tPA, which has been shown to be effective for patients who present within about three to four and a half hours of the start of symptoms. But since Bob awoke with his symptoms, no one could confirm when they began. That put him outside the window for tPA treatment.
Because other interventional therapies were not available at the hospital he’d been taken to, the care team recommended Bob be transferred to the Comprehensive Stroke Center at Mayo Clinic’s Florida campus for treatment.
Mayo Clinic has one of only three Comprehensive Stroke Centers in the state of Florida certified by The Joint Commission, and in 2014, it was the first to receive that designation. The multidisciplinary team is able to provide all available medical, surgical and interventional therapies for stroke patients.
When Shirley arrived at Mayo Clinic with daughter Kristen, they were met by David A. Miller, M.D. , an endovascular neuroradiologist and director of the stroke center. Dr. Miller says many facilities would consider Bob’s case too risky for intervention and would have just kept him under observation.
“At Mayo Clinic, though, we were able to do advanced imaging studies to show us if there was still brain tissue that could be salvaged,” he says. “In Mr. Gessner’s case, we felt there was tissue to be saved. We weighed the risks and opted to go forward with a thrombectomy.”
During a thrombectomy, a mechanical device is passed through a catheter placed into an artery in the leg. The device is then threaded into the brain to remove a clot. This procedure requires specialized training and is an option for patients who traditionally don’t have other alternatives, says Dr. Miller. But even after the thrombectomy, Bob’s recovery was uncertain.
“While fewer people are dying from stroke, it is still a major cause of disability. The faster you can restore blood flow to an area, the more brain cells you can save, and the better the recovery,” Dr. Miller says. “We still didn’t know when Mr. Gessner’s stroke had started or how much function we could recover. We hoped for the best.
Five hours after arriving at Mayo Clinic, Bob was awake and talking
“When Dr. Miller came to visit me, he had to convince me that I’d had a stroke,” says Bob. “I had a hard time believing it.”
Bob’s right hand remained paralyzed, but he did have use of his right leg. After working with a physical therapist for a few days, Bob’s gait returned. He was able to walk by himself out of the hospital on his discharge. His hand remained problematic, though.
As an artist, Bob was distressed.
“I have always loved the idea that you can create something that no one else can. I was concerned that I would never draw again,” he says.
Bob began his career in 1958 as a designer and illustrator for Pittsburgh Outdoor Advertising. He worked for a couple of ad agencies before starting his own business, Robert Gessner Advertising, in 1973.
“I did work for the University of Pittsburgh’s athletic department, including painting action shots of the All-Americans for football program covers. I designed the Pittsburgh Pirates emblem that made it through two World Series victories.”
“I was inspired by a trip to Gettysburg in 1960 and became a real Civl War buff. The uniforms fascinated me,” he says.
With his wife’s encouragement, Bob started exercising and squeezing a rubber ball regularly to restore feeling and muscles in his right hand. In less than four months, he was able to start painting again.
“My right hand is perfect now. I’m drawing pictures just as well as I did before,” Bob says.
“It truly is wonderful to see Mr. Gessner recover so well,” says Dr. Miller. “The inability to use his right hand would have been devastating for someone who made their living being creative.”
To celebrate his recovery and regaining the use of his hand, Bob organized a party — specifically, the 21st birthday party he never had.
“When I was in the Army on my way to Korea, we crossed the international date line on my 21st birthday. When you cross the international date line you miss a day. So I missed my birthday,” Bob says.
Dr. Miller and his family were at the party to help the Gessners celebrate.
“It’s very gratifying whenever a patient gets better, but in cases where you are taking a bit more of a chance and the outcome is unknown, it’s even more so to see that that you did ended up making a big difference,” Dr. Miller says. “I’m so happy to see Mr. Gessner returning to a meaningful quality of life and doing what he loves.”
“I can’t put into words what I think of Dr. Miller,” Bob says. “He’s wonderful. I sent him the last painting I did.”
Shirley is also grateful to everyone at Mayo Clinic for saving her husband’s life and minimizing any permanent disability.
“Art is his whole life. He’s been drawing and painting since he was 5 years old,” she says. “The care he received at Mayo was unparalleled. Nobody could have done more for him.”